Is Conflict The Same As Contention?
by RI Editors
Co-authored by Becca and Jendoop, this essay is from our Separating Culture from Doctrine series, an ongoing series addressing culture and policy in our LDS communities that stem from doctrine but may not necessarily be doctrine. If you have a question to ask or an essay to submit, please do so using our Contact or Submit form.
Conflict is a common event in any healthy relationship, whether it is a close relationship or an acquaintance. We are each individuals, so no matter how much we have in common, we are also bound to have some differences. It is in these differences that we find conflict. What are we to do with this conflict? If we view conflict as a bad thing we drop it and run like the house is on fire. If we view conflict as a good thing we seize the opportunity and patiently work towards collaboration. Conflict is a good thing, and we’ll get to a specific example a bit later.
As you read about conflict it is possible that this scripture popped into your mind:
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. 3 Nephi 11:7
When we talk of conflict, we as LDS people generally consider it the same thing as contention. It is not. Recently, professor Michael J. Stevens from Weber State University discovered an interesting trend among members of the Church, especially members of the Church who were raised in Utah. On a 12 point scale, members of the Church who were raised in Utah had a strong tendency to have an avoidance method of conflict resolution (9.1). This leads to elevated levels of passive aggressive behavior. Brother Stevens suggests two possible sources of this trend. The first is the scripture quoted above. He says,
I often observe that mainstream LDS Church members along the Wasatch Front have a difficult time confronting any form of disagreement, even when they are clearly uncomfortable or unhappy with what’s being discussed or decided. It’s as if they were conflating all forms of disagreement or conflict with contention.
The avoidance method of conflict resolution is a way to deal with conflict that reduces tension but likely does little to truly resolve the conflict. If we are of this mindset we view conflict as a negative thing under all, or nearly all, circumstances and just want it to go away. We may avoid conflict with silence, by running away, or simply by giving in and not honoring our own feelings or ideas. There are negative consequences associated with avoiding conflict. Think about that – avoiding conflict is not a virtue, it brings negative consequences.
Passive aggressive behavior is one of those consequences of conflict avoidance. When a person is passive aggressive it means that they don’t outwardly express their feelings in a mature way, communicating and thus providing opportunities for resolution. Instead, those feelings come out in other ways. An example would be a child who is told by their mother to eat their peas and then throws them at their brother. The child feels that they can’t have a conflict with mom about the peas so instead they express their contrary feelings in a negative way, by throwing the peas. This happens in adult relationships as well, though most adults have learned more subtle ways to express their repressed feelings. (While conflict avoidance is easy to spot in others, it is most important that we identify it in ourselves because that is the only person we can truly change.) See if any of these sound familiar: showing up 15 minutes late for a meeting you don’t want to attend, stopping at the grocery store for ice cream as your spouse asked, but not buying the variety they prefer, or taking a lower salary than you feel you deserve and then taking long lunch breaks and leaving early.
Another consequence of conflict avoidance is repressed anger. Do you ever have moments, probably infrequently, where anger surges out of you uncontrollably and you’re not sure where it came from? It is likely repressed anger, little bits of avoided conflict that you held in until the dam broke and your anger was unleashed, possibly on someone who least deserved it.
Why is it that LDS people avoid conflict more than the general population?
Professor Stevens suggests two possible sources of this trend. The first is the scripture quoted above. He says, “I often observe that mainstream LDS Church members along the Wasatch Front have a difficult time confronting any form of disagreement, even when they are clearly uncomfortable or unhappy with what’s being discussed or decided. It’s as if they were conflating all forms of disagreement or conflict with contention.”
Elder Ballard gave an example in a now well-known address, Counseling with our Councils (which became a book), which is contrary to the LDS cultural belief of ‘not making waves’. In a ward council meeting the bishop asked how the ward could improve their reverence. The Primary president spoke up and said there was one person who was the main offender: the bishop. He openly took her advice and they worked on ways to improve reverence. This example was used to illustrate how a council should work in the church. What it might be most remembered for is the way the Primary president openly confronted the bishop. This is a great example of confrontation that was not contentious which resulted in good.
The really interesting thing about this confrontation is how contention was avoided. The bishop, the object of the confrontation, kept the situation from becoming contentious. He openly took the advice of his council and worked to improve. What a humble man. This is what happens when righteous people confront each other; changes are made for the good of the kingdom through patient collaboration.
I’ve also seen the damage that continues to happen when people refuse to confront an issue. I knew a Primary president who had a problem in her Primary but when the bishop asked her if there were any issues she said there were none. She came to me upset because her husband chided her for not confronting the issue. It was disappointing to her when I agreed with her husband; the Primary children would suffer if the issue was not confronted. Councils are the last place that we should allow avoidance to rule our interactions. Most importantly, our family councils, both those with all members of the family and those between husband and wife, should be filled with confrontation. Not contention, but confrontation. Confrontation is necessary to facilitate change. Change is repentance in everyday clothes.
The second source of avoidance and resultant passive aggressive behavior, Professor Stevens explains, comes from a, “..strong culture of obedience and submission. A simple search of general conference talks for the past decade shows obedience to be a constant and recurring theme.”
I appreciate that Professor Stevens didn’t stop there and make a comment about brainwashing. Rather, he points out that all forms of submission are not created equal. “For example, there is submission that flows from the unrighteous dominion of others, which can result in ungodly submission. On the other hand, there is submission that flows from the voluntary, authentic and willful act of choosing a better path.”
Where many members of the Church, especially Utah-raised members (as proven by the study), go wrong in their quest for being meek and submissive is that they tend to confuse the two types of submission, deciding that submission to the unrighteous dominion of another is the same as the voluntary submission of choosing a better path. (I would like to point out that it can be difficult, when enmeshed in the situation, to discern what unrighteous dominion is; it doesn’t always announce its presence with a clenched fist and chains.)
My husband likes to point out that, until it was time for him to die, the Savior did not stay in situations where He would be killed. When people started picking up stones to throw at him, Jesus didn’t stick around. He was submissive, but not to unrighteous dominion. When it was time for Him to submit to the will of the Father and atone for the sins of the world, the Savior absolutely chose the better path and submitted Himself to the will of the Father.
A third reason for this tendency to avoid conflict, Professor Stevens points out, is a tendency to give deference to Church leaders. He points out, and I agree, that this tendency is cultural, not doctrinal. This deference is closely linked to the culture of submission. Members of the Church feel as if the leaders of the Church have the first, last, and only say on every topic in our entire lives. Any difference of opinion is evil and apostate. I do think that criticism of Church leaders is definitely a quick road to apostasy, but it is possible to disagree with someone without criticizing them. (Similar to being confrontational without being contentious.)
It is not bad to disagree with counsel from Church leaders. Even Elder Christofferson himself said, “It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.” (Although I do not think this idea is as commonly understood as Elder Christofferson thinks it is – and see? I disagreed with Elder Christofferson, without criticizing him!) When we are not willing to acknowledge our differing opinions there is no opportunity to explore those differences, to appreciate differences, and even find common ground and answers.
An avoidance method of conflict resolution can lead to negative consequences, just one of which is the missed collaboration that could improve lives. These concepts have relevance in every aspect of our lives in which we interact with other people, whether or not those other people share our religious views, or views about contention. We have to find a better way.
- Is conflict the same thing as contention? Can we disagree without being contentious?
- How can we foster a better understanding of submission in our church culture?
- How can we help our children and those around us develop better methods of conflict resolution, rather than simply avoidance?
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